Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Buckling under a crushing burden of assignments and responsibility placed on it by the City Council, Arcata’s Public Safety Committee last week asked for relief. But, faltering even over the course of the two-hour meeting, it ended without enough members to formalize a request.
The citizen-led advisory body, which meets monthly, had been charged by the City Council to deliver recommendations on extremely weighty policy matters – police use of force, use of bodycams, civilian police oversight, and the police department’s post-COVID budget, including the possibility of abolishing or redefining the Arcata Police Department as it presently exists.
Those initiatives bear heavily on the city's long-term response to systemic issues identified by the unsolved killing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson, and to the Black Lives Matter movement. APD Chief Brian Ahearn has urged the committee to seize the moment in making substantive change, hoping for a package of recommendations for the council to look at and act on this fall.
While Arcata's citizen committees routinely develop projects and policy recommendations to send up to the City Council, it wasn't long before the sheer weight of the council's charge to the committee led to signs of stress.
Last month, Committee Chair Melissa Lazon and Member Anjalai Browning resigned for undisclosed reasons (see below), following the previous resignation of Member Adrian Kamata. The City Council then declined to immediately appoint replacement members, leaving the committee with just four.
At last week’s Zoom meeting, Lazon participated as a citizen. “It is my personal opinion that we need to direct the council to create stakeholder workgroups around these current issues of reform,” Lazon said in a prepared statement. “Implementing this level of reform will require work that I personally believe is above the capacity of our committee alone.”
She said the committee could recommend an oversight model (as noted in the city’s Grand Jury response), and make budget recommendations, but that the working groups would be the ones to flesh out the details and implementation. Committeemembers could attend the groups’ meetings and report back.
“But I feel this work is just too political and grand for seven volunteers to take on alone,” Lazon said. “I’m seeing the impact of this weight on our committeemembers, and I fear that the committee will disintegrate if we don’t share this work. Personally, I would like to see us get back to focusing on neighborhood and community projects geared toward engaging community members and building safer neighborhoods. It is my hope that we can come back from this wiser and stronger.”
Vice Chair Lettie Harris (formerly Dyer) agreed. “I want to see us get back to the work that we started with,” she said, noting various public safety education projects in progress such as the Safe Arcata Quick Guide.
Member Fred Johansen agreed, saying he was finding it difficult to carry on as a member since he lacked the information to rule on the “huge” policy assignments. “It’s gonna require more than we’re able to give.”
“I cannot see how we can move forward,” Harris said. “There’s no clarity right now... We’re kind of at a disarray right now; everything just feels really awkward.”
Ahearn aired the idea of asking the council to relieve it of the extraordinary assignments and get back to basics. “There is nothing wrong with that,” he said. Johansen then articulated a motion to do just that. But during the ensuing deliberations, no second was offered.
The committee's job description, according to the city's website:
“The Public Safety Committee’s primary focus is to provide a public forum for the City of Arcata, the Arcata Police Department and community members to share their public safety concerns and identify potential solutions. Committee members will research and evaluate crime trends and identify the highest risks to public safety. Committee members will also make recommendations to the City Council, City Commissions and City staff regarding threats to public safety, crime reduction and prevention strategies based on their research and community outreach.”
Member Andrew Campbell read a subcommittee report on civilian oversight, noting issues it might concern itself with, include lawsuits, injuries, use of force, complaints and lack of public confidence. Possible action could bring varying levels of involvement by the overseers, the recommended model being officers investigating complaints and then having citizens evaluate their findings.
That and other committee work will be included in its annual report to the council for possible adoption by the working groups, of the council chooses to take that direction.
The committee also went over revision’s to APD’s use of force policy, but forestalled making findings pending new information from Lexipol, a prominent public safety think tank.
Late in the meeting, Harris suddenly departed, leaving the nominally seven-member committee with just three members, and no quorum. She disappeared from the Zoom feed, then Ahearn said he'd received a text from her saying she wouldn't be returning to the meeting.
The remaining members further discussed use of force issues, but no action was taken.
Throughout the online meeting, a member’s wind chimes played a random, whimsical melody.
From the Sept. 2 Union:
Resignations halt work of key city committee
Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Resignations of three members of Arcata’s Public Safety Committee have halted the group’s work, just as the City Council had charged it with some major tasks.
The committee’s Aug. 26 meeting was cut short due to lack of a quorum after Chair Melissa Lazon announced her resignation for “personal and complicated” reasons. Also resigned is member Anjalai Browning. Member Adrian Kamata had previously left the committee.
The City Council was to interview new committeemember candidates for the vacancies tonight.
The setback comes at an inopportune time for the all-volunteer citizen committee. It has been tasked by the City Council to develop a range of law enforcement reform policies for consideration and adoption by the council.
The council hoped to fast-track new policies regarding an enhanced social services component to law enforcement, civilian oversight of the police department, use of body cams and police car cams, and use of force. The committee has formed two subcommittees to focus on those issues.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” said Police Chief Brian Ahearn. “We want to set the example for police reform.”
He said the committee’s August agenda will carry over to the September meeting, which will include the election of new officers given the chair’s departure.
“I don’t see the process slowing down,” Ahearn said.